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Urge for Going

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Ramsey Faragallah and Tala Ashe.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

"One man's facts are another man's fabrications," says a character early in Mona Mansour's new play Urge for Going, which has just opened at The Public Theater as part of its Public LAB developmental program. This statement is central to both the play's central tension, the plight of refugee Palestinians in the Middle East, and Mansour's play itself, which thrives—a little, not a lot—on the historic and personal uncertainties of the conflict between Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East.

Those words are uttered in response to what would seem to be a clear, verifiable statement: "The 1948 Palestinian exodus refers to the refugee flight of Palestinian Arabs during the last six months of British rule and the first Arab-Israeli war." But such a description is itself considered incendiary, even propagandistic, leading everyone to question both their words and the words others use to outline the boundaries in which they live their lives. That all the characters embroiled in this discussion are on the same side, and are in fact related to each other, makes their difficulty communicating even more pressing and poignant.

But this is all atmosphere and background, more for our benefit than theirs. Once Mansour drops these layers of commentary and meta-commentary, we see that the lives of those in this extended family are much more conventional (and less engaging), retaining the outline of a typical stage chronicle about what we know, what we don't, and what happens when the two states collide.

Jamila (Tala Ashe), is a teenager living in a refugee camp in Lebanon, with her parents (Ramsey Faragallah and Jacqueline Antaramian), brother Jul (Omid Abtahi), and two uncles (Ted Sod and Demosthenes Chrysan), who have all been occupying it since the late 1960s. Temporarily, they insist—they all harbor hopes, fading more each day, of being able to return home to the lives they led before. Jamila has never known any other home, and thus wants to visit other cities in Europe at least as much as her homeland, and she may get her chance if she's able to take and pass a test that will grant her acceptance into an elite secondary school in Damascus. Her father, however, has lost all faith in the system, and has begun transferring that disillusionment to her—causing the two to draw further apart even as they should be finding ways to come more closely together.

The stories of Jamila's and her father's dual quests for independence provide a strong emotional core for Urge for Going, and Mansour and director Hal Brooks are at their best bringing that to the forefront of the production: You see how their struggles and personalities are so similar that they can't help but clash. Ashe is thoroughly believable as Jamila, nicely blending a 17-year-old's rebelliousness with her innate perkiness and a core of sadness she doesn't understand. Faragallah effectively tempers his tenderness with concern for the lot of his people, which is overpowering almost to the point of rage.

Though the rest of the acting is no less accomplished—Antaramian, who bears a constant seen-it-all hollowness, is particularly good—the other characters are not as well fleshed-out. Aside from trying to balance tradition and modernism, Jamila's mother has but a negligible role in the story; the uncles, nearly interchangeable, do even less. Jul is on hand to bring the horrors of violence into the discussion, but his particular malady—a beating from a taunting guard, followed by inadequate medical care, transformed the young adult from a genius to a simpleton—doesn't convey the depth of loss or tragedy that might really bring the war inside the walls of Jason Simms's set.

It's that set, in fact, that demonstrates the grief and the compromise of the family: It's a hovel that looks like it was carved from cinderblock and radiates no comfort or permanence whatsoever. From looking at the set, and the tentative way with which everyone onstage interacts with it, you instantly accept that this is a place none of them truly belongs. They might not have confidence in anything else about their lives, but they refuse to let go of the dream that they will someday be able to go home. That message of disenfranchisement resounds loudly and well throughout all of Urge for Going, even when too much of the rest of the play rings hollow and familiar.

Urge for Going
Through April 17
13th Street Repertory Theatre, 50 West 13th Street
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